Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr. 4 G-Dur op. 58
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sinfonie Nr. 4 B-Dur op. 60
A Gentler Side of the Titans
There was a joke among my fellow music students: «How many symphonies did Beethoven write?» - «Three: the 3rd, the 5th, and the 9th». While true lovers of Beethoven's art treasure all nine, the occasional concert-goer is less familiar with most of the even-numbered symphonies, perhaps because they are harder to imagine as the work of the grim and glowering figure seen in so many paintings and busts. The Fourth is 'a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants', as Robert Schumann memorably put it. The slow introduction is sombre, but as soon as the tempo picks up, it is all smiles and spring flowers alongside Beethoven's robust humour. But time stops and the world melts away in the Adagio, prefiguring the quiet ecstasies of late Beethoven. Hector Berlioz imagined that it could have been breathed by the Archangel Michael as he contemplated the world from on high (the astute reader will have spotted Berlioz's mistake - in Milton’s mythology, it was the Archangel Raphael!).
The 4th Piano Concerto was premiered in the same concert as the 4th Symphony, in March 1807 (a year after the Lucerne Symphony was founded), with Beethoven himself at the piano. This Concerto is another slender Greek maiden between the more muscular attractions of the 3rd and 5th Concertos. Its slow movement takes us back onto mythological territory, Orpheus at the piano pleading with the Furies (the strident strings) to let him pass through the gates of Hades so that he can retrieve his beloved Eurydice. Although Beethoven didn’t make the association explicit, the myth has long been attached to the movement in the popular imagination, and biographical evidence has put it on a firm footing. That same calming voice of Orpheus was already heard at the very beginning of the concerto. For the concerto’s first audience, this novelty would have sounded like the composer beginning one of his famed improvisations, since concertos at the time were supposed to open with a grand orchestral statement. But Beethoven was not improvising, since the orchestra immediately takes up his refrain, locked in intimate conversation with the soloist.
Who knows whether Beethoven, pining for an 'immortal beloved' he had to leave behind, ever dared to imagine domestic bliss (even his housekeepers found him difficult to bear). Wagner was more fortunate, and we have an unusual chance to eavesdrop on his household. Immersed in the composition of The Ring, his gigantic 15-hour epic, he needed to summon Beethovenian power and drive for his hero, Siegfried. And yet the Siegfried-Idyll uses the same music for a piece of tenderness and magic. Why? For a very sweet reason: this was a private piece for the birth of his son, whom they named ... Siegfried, of course! The happy mother woke to the sounds of a most elaborate and beautiful lullaby mounting the stairs of their villa in Triebschen. Wagner really had assembled an orchestra downstairs, his gift in return for the efforts of the birth.
Marina Frolova-Walker FBA
Professor of Music History, University of Cambridge